Grand Theft Auto V is known for its high-octane blockbuster action and its unforgettable set-piece moments. Its take on Los Angeles delivers a Hollywood-inspired narrative that sees players experience the adventures of Michael, Franklin and Trevor – three distinct protagonists that make up the single-player experience of Rockstar Games’ open-world masterpiece. However, the stories don’t stop there as the ever-talented online community has set out to create their own narratives using the tools Rockstar has given them in GTA Online – its service-based sandbox multiplayer mode that uses the same sprawling open-world of Los Santos and Blaine County to deliver even more chaotic gameplay that can be enjoyed with your friends or the wider player-base.
Since its 2013 release more than five years ago, Rockstar Games has continued to update GTA Online with new content and features. One of those comes in the form of the Rockstar Editor, which made its debut on the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V in Spring 2015 before later following on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. The Rockstar Editor and its accompanying Director’s Mode features a full suite of tools that allows aspiring creators and videographers to create their own films in the world of Grand Theft Auto V. It’s no surprise that the community has delivered some incredible short films in the world of Los Santos, but out there is a small group of talented video makers who are pushing the Rockstar Editor to its limits in order to deliver a full-featured length blockbuster movie that has been created entirely in the world of Grand Theft Auto V. Introducing KnightHunter Studios, a team who began shooting their own feature-films in Rockstar’s incredible universe back in 2011 with the latest instalment in the Grand Theft Auto series at the time – Grand Theft Auto IV.
“KnightHunter Studios was founded in 2011 by my good friend Ewan Ward, Callum Slattery and myself,” Sam Main tells me, the lead Admin of KnightHunter Studios and the director of the team’s upcoming ‘Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom’ film. “Upon its founding, I admit, we weren’t exactly moderate or decent film-makers. We were in our early teenage years and just starting to get to grips on YouTube and the possibilities the platform had. However, one thing we knew from the beginning was that we wanted to make small action-packed machinimas on Grand Theft Auto IV. I vividly remember watching two Machinima productions on YouTube at the time (I believe they were called ‘Burning Point’ and ‘72’) and just thinking “You know what? It’d be cool if we did something like that but make it our own.”
“And so, what eventually came about was in the Summer of 2012, after much discussion about what we were going to do, Ewan, Callum, myself and a few others banded together and made our first machinima,” he continues. “It was ‘Blood Grave’, and back then you were saying “Wow, this is great!” but I look back at it now and I am actually embarrassed to see the quality, or lack-of, of what we made… There was no script, no voice acting, it was all shot on a crappy little iPad with the iMovie app, and the overall movie was a bit of a mess! But we were younger then, and we’ve learnt from our mistakes (which, don’t get me wrong, we made a lot of mistakes in Blood Grave).”
Despite its faults, the team at KnightHunter Studios were motivated to keep pushing with the idea of making blockbuster films in the Grand Theft Auto universe. The team would expand with the release of each passing film, as not only were the cast and crew getting bigger, but also more talented. This resulted in each sequel always being that bit better and more polished than the preceding one.
“Subtitles for voices became artificial voices, then artificial voices to actual voice acting, and so forth,” Sam explains. “Fast forward to the present and KnightHunter Studios has brought out 7 movies in the ‘Grand Theft Auto film franchise’, a few short films, a YouTube car-review show and all within 7 years.”
“You can really see the progress us as a group of filmmakers have made by just looking at the channel over time,” he adds. “But with Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom the quality has been dialled up to 11, and it is by far the best film KnightHunter Studios has made to date – there’s no doubt in my mind about it.”
Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom is the eight film in KnightHunter Studios’ continuing ‘Grand Theft Auto film franchise,’ and it’s been in the works now for 3 entire years. Indeed, the production cycle began in 2015 and the film will finally release later this month – on December 24th, 2018. Christmas Eve. This is undoubtedly the longest time the team has spent on one film.
“The series has really been progressing with a sort of story arc, so to speak, ever since the 5th movie, ‘Grand Theft Auto Retribution’, and everything has been leading up to the grand finale,” I’m told. “The previous film in the franchise, ‘Grand Theft Auto Darklight’, really introduced the defining elements of what will be the shocking finale, but Black Phantom is really the connecting bridge; Black Phantom is the movie where twists and turns are around every corner, and it will leave you thinking “What the hell is going to happen next?!” It really is a spectacular entry in this long-running machinima franchise we have, and it definitely is the best one to date!”
In terms of story details and plot twists, Sam was eager to keep it under-wraps. “I’m not going to give too much away, of course, but Black Phantom, I like to think, is the consequences of the actions the FIB has taken in the past. It’s the answer to the catastrophes that have been brought upon the world. Whether or not it has good intentions, we shall have to see…”
The film is set only eight months after the previous entry in the Grand Theft Auto film franchise, Darklight. It sees the FIB put under intense political scrutiny by the charming yet mysterious politician, Robert Peers. After a terrorist incident forces the FIB to be put under investigation, Niko Bellic – the fan-favourite protagonist from Grand Theft Auto IV – and his team must stop at nothing in order to prove the existence of the phantom that is lurking within the government itself.
Surrounding Black Phantom are also narrative threads of personal development and personal revelations. “A lot is at stake in this film, and it reflects on the characters as the story progresses,” Sam explains. “It’s emotional and hard-hitting, whilst always keeping you on the edge of your seat. Literally. This is by far the most personal film we’ve written to date. A lot of what happens in Black Phantom has an impact on Niko and his team; the story forces them into this horrible situation, where barely anyone trusts their judgement and they are up against threats that they have never experienced before, and what amounts from this is deep character change and a more subjective, emotional experience.”
Niko Bellic, the lead protagonist from Grand Theft Auto IV, is the star of the show in the Grand Theft Auto film franchise, and the reasons for this are quite surprising, but also amusing. “The one question people always ask us, is ‘Why are you using Niko Bellic from GTA IV?’ There’s no other way around it: we didn’t know what to call our main character in Blood Grave, our very first machinima,” Sam admits to me. “The film that spawned all the franchise so far was, as I said, disorganised in the fact it had no script whatsoever. We would literally turn up to set and just go “Right, what’s happening today?” So, in the end, it just came down to us using the character of Niko Bellic and giving him a twist.”
What makes KnightHunter’s take on Bellic different to Rockstar’s is the type of person he is in the Grand Theft Auto film franchise. This isn’t just related to his occupation and line of duty, but also the emotion and background that drives this character. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko was a dark, gritty and ruthless criminal in pursuit of the American Dream in Liberty City, Rockstar’s fictional take on New York City – and KnightHunter’s Niko also takes inspiration from that ruthlessness, but he’s determined in the sense of his duty, too. Essentially, Niko will always get the job done, regardless of what’s in his way.
“Our Niko, also titled ‘Agent 11’, is a hardened assassin working for the ‘Agent programme’ of the FIB; a sort of ‘extreme measures’ division that deals with the world’s most dangerous threats,” Sam explains to me. “But what really drives the difference is the emotion that is portrayed, as our Niko has an even more troubled and dark past that is coming back to haunt him. Whilst his sense of patriotism and loyalty towards both the FIB and the country upholds, his mysterious and unnerving past remains a spectre at the feast; always lurking in the shadows. Matthew White, who is debuting as the new voice actor for Niko Bellic, and I spoke about how we wanted to go away from the suaveness, coolness-type Bellic that had been in the previous movies, who was voiced by Joel Pointon, and towards a darker, more dangerous, more conflicted Bellic. It was all part of the development process of the character in this story.”
Black Phantom doesn’t just have the longest uptime of any KnightHunter Studios project, but it’s also the most ambitious and unique film yet in their Grand Theft Auto film franchise. “Going into every new movie is a challenge because you always find yourself asking, ‘How the hell am I going to top the previous one?’ That was especially the case with Black Phantom, as Darklight, our previous film, set the bar incredibly high,” Sam explains. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to push that aside and just focus on making the best movie you can, and Black Phantom really is the best movie we have made to date.”
The director mentioned two key areas that set the bar for this project – the story and the overall scope of the film. “One thing JJ (Black Phantom’s lead writer) and I were focussed on from the start was making sure that the story was right,” I’m told. “You can have all the action in the world, but if the story isn’t great your film won’t hold up – it’s that simple. So, the story of Black Phantom is beyond anything we have attempted in the past. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s exhilarating, and it really builds on the teasers and the story lines we have been dropping in the franchise for a while.”
The scope this film goes to is what Sam believes to be the most impressive feat of Black Phantom, in terms of not just the storyline, but also the action set-pieces, the visual stunts, the acting, and the use of experimentation with going to different locations. “It’s all there,” he says quite proudly, and rightfully so – Black Phantom is shaping up to be unlike anything else we’ve seen created in the Rockstar Editor within the world of Grand Theft Auto V. Its gritty, thrilling and innovative approach to story-telling in a full-length feature-film makes Black Phantom stand out from the crowd. There’s a lot of videos and short films produced in the Rockstar Editor – but none of them are to the scale of this.
“As a small content creator, using the Rockstar Editor is just a delight,” Sam explains. “If there’s one thing I will give Rockstar a lot of credit for it is for bringing that feature into the game. It’s allowed machinima makers, who had no choice before but to use the limited capabilities of the in-game camera, to produce high quality movies; just like the folks on PC were doing for years! It really is astonishing the level of detail you can get with it.”
“One thing that was difficult for us was actually getting used to working with the Rockstar Editor, because before Black Phantom all our movies were filmed with the in-game camera, and although it worked it never really showcased the true potential of what we could do,” he continues. “So, using the Rockstar Editor for this film was by far the best thing we could do. It was weird… I remember finishing the first cut of the movie and sitting back and just turning to the team going: “Damn, we’ve actually made a movie that feels like a movie!” which I know must sound a bit odd but for us, having done 7 movies in this franchise of ours using the in-game camera, but to actually turn round and see something we made have the aesthetic of an actual film was just amazing!”
However, it’s not just the folks at KnightHunter Studios who are taking advantage of the Rockstar Editor and all its capabilities. One of Sam’s favourite aspects about the incredible suite of video making tools is the creativity and talent it has unleashed within the Grand Theft Auto Online community, but to be more specific, the machinima community. “I mean, pretty much every machinima creator I know looks up to DMVE Studios and their amazing Jake Cole series, and that was all done using the Rockstar Editor,” Sam tells me. “In addition, the guys over at TripleSix Films, who we are always in contact with and are very good friends of ours, and are totally respectable and dedicated filmmakers, are making their next movie using the Rockstar Editor and from what I’ve seen, personally, it looks bloody amazing!”
“As I said, it really brings out the talent in machinima-goers; everything from the depth of field to the positioning of the camera, it’s all very intrinsic and it just gives you the ability to be as creative as you want,” he adds. “I couldn’t recommend it more to anyone who is looking to get involved in the machinima community!”
Work began on Black Phantom during the post-production stage of Darklight, which is the seventh and previous film from KnightHunter Studios. “JJ and I were adamant on continuing the story we had started to develop in Darklight, and so we spent a long time really figuring out the story and ensuring that it was going to top anything we had done before,” Sam tells me. “The amount of changes that occurred when writing the script were brilliant, because JJ and I kept bouncing ideas off each other all the time.”
Sam noted to me that one of the main criticisms they received from viewers on Darklight was the quality of the voice acting. “There were ups and there were downs,” he says whilst reminiscing about the film. Because of this, the production crew knew the casting was a crucial element they had to get right early on. “Probably the most difficult challenge was deciding who the next voice actor would be for Niko Bellic, the protagonist,” Sam explains. “We auditioned a good number of actors for the role over a long period of time, but although they were all brilliant no one clicked with Riley, our casting director, JJ, and me. That is until we filmed the 4th series of Fast Lane, our car-review YouTube series.”
“Matthew White, a good friend of mine, came on board as a presenter and it was after the series had finished, I turned around to him and said: “Would you be interested in auditioning for the position of Niko in our next film?”, expecting a sort ‘meh’ answer, but it was the total opposite,” he continues. “Matt was 100% on board and jumped on the opportunity. He did his audition, and it probably took JJ and I 10 minutes to decide… Matthew White was going to be our new Niko Bellic. It was fantastic!”
“The whole cast throughout Black Phantom is just absolutely incredible,” Sam adds. “We’ve reached out to voice actors across the Globe, from the United States all the way to Australia, and everyone has put their 100% effort into this movie. There are new voice actors on board, such as Keoki Trask who voices ‘Valkyrie’ and Mark Powers who voices ‘Richard Delaware’, just to name a few, and there are returning voice actors that have been in the franchise for the last few movies now; Harry Quirk as ‘The Professor’ and Ellie Wilson as ‘Director Claudia Angel’, for instance. Everyone brought their A-Game, and it really has brought the overall quality of the film up!”
However, Black Phantom also faced its own challenges whilst it was in production. Like every form of interactive medium, be it video games, films or television, there were issues faced by the crew, but KnightHunter Studios successfully managed to overcome and workaround each of them. “There’s always one thing we say when shooting: expect the unexpected,” Sam amusingly says. “We’d turn up on set the day of shooting and there would always be something wrong; there would be minor things, such as connection problems and huge lag-issues, and major things, like having to change the planned location for the day at last minute! What’s amazing though is the entire crew came together and, even though things went wrong, we always managed to solve, or get past, the issue without fault!”
One example revealed to me was a change in a special car chase sequence that’s featured in Black Phantom, which originally consisted of the Kuruma, “a fantastic car” as Sam says, as well as a collection of Bati motorbikes. “That was it. It was meant to be a pure call back to Rogue Nation; one of our favourite films,” he explains. “However, when we saw the location of the chase itself, the open terrain really had no room for crashing into motorbikes and it had no way of looking exciting enough, so at last minute we just went, “Well, why don’t we split the chase in two? Car versus Car, then Car versus Bike?” And so, we spent a day or so selecting the right adversary car, which turned out to be the Coquette, and long and behold we had a car chase that was a combination of fast, open-road manoeuvrability, and twisty, agile, nimble, tight-alleyway stuff. It was just an on the spot decision to a problem we never saw coming and, in the end, it worked perfectly!”
Speaking of that car chase, it’s one sequence in the film that requires extraordinary detail in planning to deliver a flawless execution. Black Phantom even has its own dedicated Stunt Director – Ewan Ward, who is a long-time friend of Sam Main. Over the years, they’ve obsessed about car chase sequences together that are depicted in the cinema, and some of the most popular have inspired the chases seen in the films outputted by KnightHunter Studios.
“We’ve done a variety throughout the Grand Theft Auto film franchise, such as Retribution’s Massacro versus Obey 9F chase through a swamp field, to the fast-paced, darting in-and-out between traffic chase from Darklight,” Sam explains to me. “However, in Black Phantom we really wanted to showcase the tension and the stress going on in the moment. We had seen Rogue Nation’s short, but sweet, car chase, with a BMW M3 darting throughout small streets and were immediately immersed in its style and authenticity, and this is something Ewan and I wanted to create; that more engaging, immersive experience and to feel as if you are actually in the car chase.”
“The first port of call was for us to choose the car,” he continues. “Ewan and I had seen films such as Ronin, Bullitt, Drive, The Transporter, all of the best films with some of the best car chase sequences in, and we really wanted to capture that in the moment experience. So, we knew we wanted it to be half-scored, half-scoreless, and just have the engine sound, the tyre squeal, the crashes and bashes to be heard. We also figured out the car in question had to be a saloon, for there were other scenes that needed it to fit 4 people. Ewan tested a variety of cars ranging from the Obey Tailgater all the way to the V12 Benefactor Schafter, but none of them seemed to be appealing to us and to what the car chase sequence demanded. That was until we were scrolling through the car selection one day and the Kuruma came up and a lightbulb went off. We immediately tested it for the stunts it would have to do and, long and behold, it was perfect for the job! The car really is amazing, and it performs brilliantly in the movie; you can throw it into a corner, doing 100 MPH, and you can easily control it. It was such a joy to make the scene with.”
Black Phantom’s car chase sequence evolved quite significantly throughout the production of the film, but it took a lot of trial and effort before KnightHunter were happy with the scene and its overall execution. “Ewan and I are incredibly picky about what cars are in the movie,” Sam mentions. “Whenever you see a vehicle on the screen it’s there for a reason. We spend a lot of time picking and choosing vehicles depending on what the scene is calling for, what character is driving it, and so forth. A great example of this is one of the opening scenes in Black Phantom. There’s a small, quirky-little race at the start of the film between 2 characters and what could have consisted of just 2 ordinary civilian cars, or 2 over-the-top hypercars, turned out to be a direct call-back to one of my all-time favourite movies: Goldeneye.”
“The chase involves 2 classic cars, coming close to 1.5 million dollars in worth, racing through beautiful mountains and twisting country roads,” he explains. “There’s a lot of stuff like that in Black Phantom; a lot of nods, Easter eggs and call-backs to previous films in the franchise or other amazing films that have been made. But anyway, we care deeply about the cars we use in these films, and I can honestly say that this is the best one to date in terms of car choice and the action sequences that are done with them!”
That car chase scene is only one of many incredible set-piece moments featured in Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom, which becomes available worldwide on December 24th, 2018 at 7:30am BST on YouTube. It’ll be free for everyone to watch in 1080p resolution and can be found on the official KnightHunter Studios YouTube channel, where you’ll also find trailers, in-game vlogs, scene snippets and more – including all past entries into the Grand Theft Auto film franchise.
“KnightHunter Studios doesn’t make any capital off our work,” Sam mentions to me – and this is something the team are proud of. “All we are interested in is making interesting, captivating and creative machinimas for our audience and our fanbase, and we hope to keep it that way! If you’re a car fan and you love movies, look no further! Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom consists of some of the most daring and creative car chase sequences in our franchise to-date. For what took months of hard work, from initial planning to execution, I am incredibly proud of the car chase sequence that Ewan Ward and myself came up with. It’s visually captivating, and once it draws you in it doesn’t let go! I just hope the fan base, and indeed all of our viewers, enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it! It’s not just the car chase that is amazing though… There are bike chases, fight sequences, foot-chases, shootouts, everything you could possibly ask for in a thrilling and on-the-edge of your seat action movie!”
“Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom is such a thrill-ride from beginning to end,” he adds. “The film keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, and it is constantly twisting with your expectations! It’s a fun, action-packed, intriguing, emotional, adventurous rollercoaster of-a-movie, and it’s one that all of us at KnightHunter Studios are very proud of! The stunts and action sequences are some of the most daring, challenging, and creative moments of machinima we have made to date, and the story, written by JJ Ralph, perfectly continues the overarching narrative we have been exploring for the past few movies! This machinima has been 3 years in the making, and it couldn’t have been done without the amazingly talented cast and crew behind it; everything you will witness on-screen is down to the hard-working and extremely dedicated filmmakers and voice actors, who all put their 100% effort into making this, quite simply, the best film KnightHunter Studios has made!”
It would be an understatement to say that Black Phantom required an extraordinary amount of work. This is a film that has been in the making for three years, but it’s also a testament to the incredible Rockstar Editor community – a group of highly-talented individuals who make blockbuster action sequences and short-films in the Grand Theft Auto universe. The boundaries here are almost limitless and the team at KnightHunter Studios are taking the capabilities of the Rockstar Editor and the deep feature-set of Grand Theft Auto V and its ever-expanding online component to deliver a full-fledged feature-length film with a high quality production value, unmissable set-piece moments and one of the most exciting car chases that has occurred in the world of Los Santos.
However, despite the imminent release of Black Phantom, the team at KnightHunter Studios have already been thinking about its sequel – their next and final Grand Theft Auto film. “I’ve already had some people ask me about GTA 9, the 9th, and indeed final, film in our ‘Grand Theft Auto franchise’ and all I can say right now is… something is in the works,” Sam teases to me as we begin wrapping up our conversation. “I’m obviously not going to give too much away but we are definitely working on it whenever we can. JJ and I meet up regularly for coffee and sit down and discuss the plan, and I’m already in-talks with new crew members to get on board, but there’s nothing official yet.”
For now, KnightHunter Studios remain focused on the launch of Black Phantom before wrapping up its Grand Theft Auto film franchise. For the cast and crew, this will also be an opportunity to take some time for themselves to enjoy the Christmas and New Year break. “After Black Phantom is released I, personally, plan on taking a short break to gather some energy back; partly from being stuck in the editing suite working on Black Phantom, and partly from the stresses of being a University student,” Sam explains to me with relief – excited as he begins to think about smaller, upcoming projects. “But after that we’ve got a few short films and short ‘cinematic recreation’ videos coming up; so, we’ll be picking really quite famous cinematic scenes and attempting to recreate them, or do our own take on them, which’ll be interesting to do!”
Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he delivers the latest in news stories, reviews, and feature articles to the website, as well as videos on his YouTube channel and livestreams over on Mixer.